Craftsman homes and historic buildings require that special touch

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve written in previous columns that I have taught at local community and technical colleges. It’s been primarily technical schools the past ten years or so. That means I’ve been working with future (or sometimes current) plumbers, electricians, welders and auto body workers.

They don’t always get the respect they deserve, but most of them get far more pay than public school teachers, retail workers or other more “normal” vocations.

The ultimate bottom line is that they have job security few of us will ever know. The reality is that we absolutely need these people.

I live in a house in Tacoma’s North End. Nothing is level, square or a standard size. A Big Box hardware store kit to replace a door or window will never work. We need to hire a craftsman who can work with what we have to make it fit. It is never easy, always expensive and not always possible.

Several years ago we needed a new roof. We called several contractors for a bid. Several of them didn’t even get out of their truck. They looked at our steep roof line, looked at each other and drove off.

One of many classic craftsman bungalows of Tacoma's North End  Photo: Morf Morford

One of many classic craftsman bungalows of Tacoma’s North End
Photo: Morf Morford

A few years later we needed a new garage door. Our garage was built in the 1920s and remodeled in the 1940s. It violated current building codes in at least three ways; the span was too wide, the building structure was too high and it was too close to the alley.

When we called for bids for a new garage door, the young guys came out, confidently took their measurements, turned pale and told us it couldn’t be done. I’m no garage door expert, but my sense is that if a door is being replaced, it is obvious that it has been done before. They didn’t stick around to discuss the matter.

Finally, after too many desperate phone calls, one company called a former worker out of retirement. “Old Willie could do it” they said.

“Old Willie” came by, looked the space over and said he could do it. He wasn’t a fast worker, but twenty or more years later, the garage door is still working.

Since then I’ve wondered, for those of us in Tacoma’s historic housing and buildings. What are we going to do when all the “Old Willies” are gone?

I love my old house and the surrounding neighborhood full of Victorian gables, full front porches and elegant woodwork – but it is all high maintenance.

We need a new generation of craftsmen – and we need them now. And we need the retiring generation to pass on their arduously acquired set of skills and strategies before we lose them as well.

Home repair kits won’t save our historic buildings, but a welcome generation of master crafters will.